Wisbech: Epidemics, sanitation

Page 261

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.



The origin of the weekly collection for the poor, mentioned above, seems to have been the outbreak of plague. In December 1584 a balance of 11s. 6d. was allowed to John Robynson 'collector' for his pains in collecting money during the previous six weeks 'to be payd to the poore at Guyhurn vissyted with sycknes of the plage as supposed'. (fn. 1) For a time the epidemic was confined to the outparish, but in 1587 it broke out in the town itself. A pesthouse was set up at Barton, and, though many cases were not fatal, (fn. 2) William Skortred was co-opted one of the Ten to replace Robert Skortred, a plague victim, as representative of Barton ward. The total number of burials during the year was 206, including 42 in September and 20 in October, as opposed to an average of about 60 a year at this time. (fn. 3) The town seems to have escaped the 17th-century outbreaks of plague, and the first attack of cholera (1832), though causing some 20 to 30 deaths, was not so severe as in some neighbouring villages or in the country at large. The 1849 cholera epidemic, however, affected Wisbech badly. There were 140 cases, 66 fatal, in the town, and the government inspector sent the following year declared the water supply to be worse than in any other town he had visited. (fn. 4) The inspector's proposals included the establishment of a Local Board of Health for Walsoken, (fn. 5) which was to be combined with Wisbech for main sewerage. A further outbreak of cholera occurred in 1854, when the Wisbech death-rate (49 per 10,000) was the fourth highest in the country, and the following year the central Board of Health sanctioned the expenditure of £8,000 on sewerage and £13,400 on water supply. (fn. 6) By 1864 the general death-rate was down to 25 per 1,000, but water, sold at ½d. a bucket, was still being drawn from brick-pits. The Wisbech Waterworks Act of that year (27 & 28 Vic. c. clxxx) empowered the Wisbech Waterworks Company to obtain supplies from Marham (Norf.), 18 miles east of the town, and the works were completed in 1865 at a cost of £24,800. (fn. 7) They supply the whole of the borough and rural district, and a wide area around. The Water Company has now been transformed by statute into the Wisbech and District Water Board. (fn. 8) Sewage works at Foul Anchor, in Walpole (Norf.), were completed in 1877 for £11,000. (fn. 9)


  • 1. Corp. Rec. ii, 173.
  • 2. For example, some patients were to be released after 21 November, and on 10 December they were to be placed 'in stools convenyent by them selves in the churche' (Corp. Rec. ii, 202).
  • 3. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 229.
  • 4. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 65-67. Wisbech was an unhealthy town at this period; the death-rate was 30 per 1,000 for 1841- 9 (average) as compared with 20 per 1,000 in England and Wales as a whole. For the cholera year (1849) the Wisbech rate was 37.88 per 1,000.
  • 5. Wisbech as a borough was already a statutory authority for health purposes.
  • 6. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 168.
  • 7. Ibid. 169-76. Another water shortage occurred in 1877 owing to a dry winter and spring.
  • 8. Infm. Mr. P. G. Laws, County Planning Officer.
  • 9. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 179-80.